Because of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and the delay of some SAT and ACT scheduled test dates, some colleges have announced they would move to a test optional admissions policy for the 2020-2021 academic year.

What exactly is a test optional admissions policy?

That is actually a critically important question and one we should take a look at in more detail.

In general, schools that go “test optional” do not require an applicant submit an ACT or SAT test score with an application. These schools will still consider test scores if a student chooses to submit them with the application.

Some students, particularly those who do not like or may not have done well in the past on standardized tests, immediately find this option very appealing. After all, if my test score would only weaken my application, why bother with the standardized test?

The logic of that position begins to break down some when you consider how the application process actually works.

Most college applications require a student to provide biographical information, their high school transcript, and a recommendation from their counselor and perhaps one or two teachers. The application will allow the student to list extracurricular activities. Some colleges may also require a main essay and some smaller short answer questions.

At a college that is not considered very competitive, meaning it accepts at least 3 of every 4 applicants, not having a standardized test score will not matter if that student meets the minimum GPA requirement for the college. In this situation, a test optional admission might not matter for acceptance. However, many less competitive schools offer scholarships to high achieving students, and these scholarships are almost always tied to scoring high on the ACT or SAT. Thus, in this case, going test optional could deprive a student of a scholarship opportunity.

At more competitive colleges, those that accept less than half of those who apply, and at highly competitive colleges, those that accept less than one-quarter of those who apply, students generally submit the same amount of information as they would to a less competitive college. But removing the standardized test means that many students will be evaluated solely on the basis of their high school transcript. This lack of data creates a problem with so few seats available in an applicant pool. A college may not know that student’s high school very well and may not have the ability to measure the relative difficulty of the classes taken. Forced to choose between two students with the same GPA, what will the college do in scanning the transcripts for difficulty? What if your school does not offer as many honors or AP classes and the college does not know? It is possible they could think you did not push yourself as hard as someone who does have AP classes. An SAT or ACT high score would show that the applicant did have the academic ability required; indeed, that was the point of adding standardized tests to the admissions process years and years ago.

Aside from falling out of favor because of a transcript that may not reflect your academic ability, you may not have the chance to describe your extracurricular activities or other aspects that make you stand out as an applicant. Also, even though a college goes test optional, the instinct of the reviewer of applications will be to look for standardized test scores. Those that do submit a score will have at a minimum a subconscious advantage. It also will show that the student did not fear taking a standardized test and doing the work to get a high score.

The bottom line for applications to very competitive colleges in a test optional universe is that it actually makes the process more random and takes control out of your hands. With an abundance of great students with activities and GPA that look similar, what will make the difference? If you did not have an AP score to submit, the ACT or SAT score could tip the balance in your favor.

As you can see, you want to reduce the chaos and lottery-like nature of the admissions process, and the best way to do that is with more data, not less. Do not fall for the test-optional trap: if you can take the SAT or ACT, do so. And if you need assistance preparing, we are here to help with our ACT and SAT prep courses.